The National Education Policy Center in Boulder, Colorado, released a report today about the performance of the for-profit online corporation K12. This is the biggest of the online operators, which has been criticized repeatedly for poor academic performance yet continues to expand. Just recently, Ohio and Pennsylvania added more for-profit virtual charters, as North Carolina rejected them and New Jersey deferred making a decision.

The new NEPC report found that students who enroll in these virtual schools do worse in academics than those who attend a brick-and-mortar school.

The authors of the report urged states to slow down in their headlong rush to open more such “schools.”

Here are the major findings, as reported in the press release:

New Report Shows Students Who Attend K12 Inc. Cyber Schools Falling Behind

Students at K12 Inc., Nation’s Largest Virtual School Company,
Are Lagging in Reading, Math and Graduation Rates; Researchers Say Evidence of Success Needed BEFORE Further Expansion

Few Dollars Dedicated to Instructional Salaries and Special Ed, Despite Lower Overhead Costs

WASHINGTON — A new report released today by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado shows that students at K12 Inc., the nation’s largest virtual school company, are falling further behind in reading and math scores than students in brick-and- mortar schools. These virtual schools students are also less likely to remain at their schools for the full year, and the schools have low graduation rates. “Our in-depth look into K12 Inc. raises enormous red flags,” said NEPC Director Kevin Welner.

The report’s findings will be presented in Washington today to a national meeting of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), where the report’s lead author, Dr. Gary Miron, is scheduled to debate Dr. Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K–12 Online Learning. The report is titled, Understanding and Improving Full- Time Virtual Schools.

“Our findings are clear,” said Miron, an NEPC fellow, “Children who enroll in a K12 Inc. cyberschool, who receive full-time instruction in front of a computer instead of in a classroom with a live teacher and other students, are more likely to fall behind in reading and math. These children are also more likely to move between schools or leave school altogether – and the cyberschool is less likely to meet federal education standards.”

K12 Inc. schools generally operate on less public revenue, but they have considerable cost savings, says Miron. They devote minimal or no resources to facilities, operations, and transportation. These schools also have more students per teacher and pay less for teacher salaries and benefits than brick-and-mortar schools.

“Computer-assisted learning has tremendous potential,” said Miron. “But at present, our research shows that virtual schools such as those operated by K12 Inc. are not working effectively. States should not grow full-time virtual schools until they have evidence of success. Most immediately, we need to better understand why the performance of these schools suffers and how it can be improved.”

Earliier this week, New Jersey education officials postponed granting approval to a K12 Inc. full- time virtual schools for one year. In many states, however, policy is headed in exactly the opposite direction. In Michigan, for example, legislators decided earlier this year to lift the cap on full-time virtual schools, even though the state was in the second year of a pilot study to see whether these schools work and what could be done to ensure they work better. That pilot study had provided no findings to support such a scale-up.

Student performance results from the current study are clearly in line with the existing body of evidence, which includes state evaluations and audits of virtual schools in five states as well as a more rigorous study of student learning in Pennsylvania virtual charter schools conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. CREDO’s study found virtual-school students ended up with learning gains that were “significantly worse” than students in traditional charters and public schools.

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Miron and co-author Jessica L. Urschel, a doctoral student at Western Michigan University, analyzed federal and state data sets for revenue, expenditures, and student performance. In terms of student demographics and school performance data, the researchers studied all of K12’s 48 full-time virtual schools. In terms of revenues and expenditures, they used a federal data set that includes seven K12 Inc. schools from five different states (Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Ohio and Pennsylvania), although these seven schools accounted for almost 60 percent of all of K12 Inc.’s enrollment from 2008-09, which is the most recent year of available finance data.

In terms of the number of students enrolled, K12 Inc. is the largest private education management organization (EMO) and the largest private operator of virtual schools in the United States. It had contracts to operate 48 full-time virtual schools in 2011-12. In addition to these contracts, K12 Inc. provides services and support to dozens of other schools that have more limited online offerings.

Key findings include:

  •   Math scores for K12 Inc.’s students are 14 to 36 percent lower than scores for other students in the states in which the company operates schools. Across grades 3- 11, the scores were between 2 and 11 percentage points below the state average in reading.
  •   The on-time graduation rate for students the K12 Inc. schools is 49.1 percent, compared with a rate of 79.4 percent for the states in which the company operates schools.
  •   Only 27.7 percent of K12 Inc.’s schools reported meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards in 2010-11, compared to 52% for brick-and-mortar schools in the nation as a whole.
  •   Student attrition is exceptionally high in K12 Inc. and other virtual schools. Many families appear to approach the virtual schools as a temporary service: Data in K12 Inc.’s own school performance report indicate that 31% of parents intend to keep their students enrolled for a year or less, and more than half intend to keep their students enrolled for two years or less. K12 Inc. also noted in this report that 23% of its current students were enrolled for less than a year and 67% had been enrolled for fewer than two years.

• K12 Inc.’s schools spend more on overall instructional costs than comparison schools – including the cost of computer hardware and software, but noticeably less on teachers’ salaries and benefits.

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  • K12 Inc. spends little or nothing on facilities and maintenance, transportation, and food service.
  • K12 Inc. enrolls students with disabilities at rates moderately below public school averages, although this enrollment has been increasing, but the company spends half as much per pupil as charter schools overall spend on special education instruction and a third of what districts spend on special education instruction.Among the take-aways from all this is that K12 Inc.’s cyberschools reduce costs by having more students per teacher and by reducing overall spending on teachers’ salaries and benefits, particularly for special education instruction. “Part of K12’s problem seems to be that it skimps on special education spending and employs few instructors, despite having lower overhead than brick-and-mortar schools,” said the NEPC’s Welner, who is a professor of education policy at the University of Colorado.